Contenders at the ready
© AFP

For the likes of Argentina’s Boca Juniors, who have lifted the Copa Libertadores four times since 2000, and Brazil’s Internacional, winners of two of the last five editions, continental success has become intertwined with the fabric of the club and its supporters. Yet that would not make another triumph any less special, with every former champion in the field sure to battle just as hard as the rest to clinch the coveted trophy in 2011. 

This year’s competition promises to be another fiercely contested affair. Indeed, a significant proportion of the 32 clubs involved in the group phase, which starts on Wednesday, can justifiably consider themselves contenders for Inter’s throne, particularly those with the experience of going close in recent years.  

Fresh in the memory
That is precisely the case for Brazilian hopefuls Gremio, Fluminense and Cruzeiro, runners-up in 2007, 2008 and 2009 respectively. These near misses came after victories for countrymen Sao Paulo in 2005 and Internacional in 2006, with the latter ending the three-year jinx by beating Mexico’s Guadalajara in the 2010 final.

Flu coach Muricy Ramalho, who guided his club to domestic championship success last year to add to three league crowns won with Sao Paulo, has his eye on adding a first Libertadores title to his CV. “We’ve been drawn in a very difficult group and so the first phase won’t be easy,” said the boss of O Tricolor Carioca, who have been drawn with Argentinos Juniors, Mexico’s America anhoud Uruguay’s Nacional.

“That said, we’ve been preparing really thoroughly and we’re hoping to hit the kind of form a team needs to win the Libertadores,” added Ramalho, who will be looking to Flu’s on-fire striker Fred, scorer of eight goals already this year, to help him go one better than the runners-up finish secured while at the Sao Paulo helm in 2006.

We’ve been preparing really thoroughly and we’re hoping to hit the kind of form a team needs to win the Libertadores.
Muricy Ramalho, Fluminense coach

Gremio, meanwhile, will have to do without last season’s Brazilian Serie A top scorer Jonas, who made the switch to Valencia in the January transfer window. But they can still count on the charisma and motivational skills of coach Renato Gaucho, an iconic figure at the club from his playing days, as well as a tough and close-knit squad. That grittiness will no doubt be redoubled should they cross swords with Porto Alegre neighbours and rivals Inter, with holders O Colorado desperate to make up for a premature exit at the FIFA Club World Cup UAE 2010 by retaining the Libertadores.

Cruzeiro, for their part, have an intriguing blend of South American nous within their ranks in the shape of Argentinian duo Walter Montillo and Ernesto Farias, Paraguayan forward Jose Ortigoza and recently signed Uruguayan defender Mauricio Victorino. “It’s going to be my sixth Copa Libertadores campaign,” said Victorino. “I’ve reached the semi-finals twice as well as the semis of the World Cup (in South Africa 2010), but I’ve still got to prove my worth out on the pitch. I’m hoping to pass on my experience to my team-mates and learn from them too.”

Record winners back in the running
With five teams apiece in group phase, Brazil and Argentina have the joint-largest contingents in this year’s competition. Among the Argentinian pack are Independiente, Libertadores winners a record seven times, who have not taken part since 2004 and whose last triumph was way back in 1984.

Fans of El Diablo Rojo will be pinning their hopes on Matias Defederico rediscovering the flying form of his Huracan days after returning to his homeland on loan from Brazil’s Corinthians, while coach Antonio ‘El Turco’ Mohamed has made giant strides in his short time in charge. “I arrived here less than four months ago and results have gone well,” said Mohamed, who guided his new club to Copa Sudamericana glory shortly after taking the job in October.

“But this is a whole different ball game. These aren’t knockout ties, it’s about what we do over the next six matches. That said, we do have to get off to a winning start, that’s true,” added Mohamed, whose side reached the group phase after edging out preliminary-round opponents Deportivo Quito.

Estudiantes de La Plata, whose fourth triumph came as recently as 2009, and 1994 champions Velez Sarsfield are two more former winners in the running. And though Buenos Aires giants Boca Juniors and River Plate are not involved, Argentinos Juniors and Godoy Cruz are sure to do their best to keep their country’s banner held high.

It should come as little surprise, therefore, that it is the Brazilian and Argentinian clubs that have dominated the competition over the years, with 22 and 14 wins respectively. Uruguayan sides have a proud record too, however, claiming eight of the 15 editions not won by teams from South America’s two footballing behemoths.

In contrast, Bolivia, Venezuela, Peru and Mexico have yet to produce a winner of the continent’s leading club competition, though the latter two nations have both come close. Peru’s Universitario and Sporting Cristal finished runners-up in 1972 and 1997 respectively, while Mexican clubs Cruz Azul and Guadalajara matched those feats in 2001 and 2010.

Carrying the Peruvian banner in 2011 are Universidad San Martin and Leon de Huanuco, with San Luis and Jaguares the Mexican standard-bearers. And though the odds are undoubtedly stacked in favour of one of the big names, could this be the year a minnow breaks their Libertadores duck?